Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Preservationist's Dilemma

Over Market Urbanism, Emily Washington has called attention to a story out of Arlington, Virginia, where county planners have begun an effort to identify "historic" structures in the area in spite of the fact that few buildings in the area, which has been intensively redeveloped in the last 30 years, are more than 100 years old.  In the planners' sights: "garden apartments, shopping centers and commercial properties more than 50 years old."  Noting the conflict here between preservationist and smart growth goals, she writes:

"While Smart Growth supporters and historic preservation activists share the same propensity for top-down control of development, this issue gets to the core of their inherent conflict. The preservation of car-centric development prevents higher density, walkable communities, even when this is what the market demands. While individuals may attempt to embrace both ideologies, protecting mediocre mid-century suburban architecture necessarily comes at the expense of Smart Growth principles."

The use of historic preservation to preserve not only architecture, but the urban form itself, is not a new development.  The National Register of Historic Places and municipal organizations have been listing and protecting entire neighborhoods, many of them consisting of low-density single-family detached residential homes, for decades now, the only change being that the National Register's 50-year rolling cutoff for historic eligibility has lately encompassed the equally low-density but less architecturally noteworthy suburbs of the 1950s and early 1960s.

In Nashville, for instance, the city council has gradually been increasing the number of neighborhoods subject to oversight by the Metro Historic Zoning Commission (MHZC) since the first designation in 1977, nearly all of them inner-ring suburban  residential neighborhoods laid out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

Nashville's newest historically protected neighborhood:
"historic" houses, but entirely suburban in form and density.

Although the stated purpose of the historic overlays is "to protect the architectural and historic character" of these neighborhoods, vague historic guidelines regarding scale have been  used to pressure the Commission into increasing setbacks, limiting heights, reducing permissible building footprints and shrinking accessory dwellings below what is permitted even by the city's restrictive zoning code – in short, impeding efforts to densify the neighborhood even by gradual and architecturally respectful additions and infill.  As long as this authority remains, even a liberalization of local zoning will not have the desired effect. 

This situation might not even be especially objectionable were it not for the fact that these early suburbs are invariably located in the very places – adjacent, or close to, to city centers – where the market pressure for densification is highest, and where such density will be most beneficial to the city, being located along already-existing mass transit lines and close to urban employment centers. 

For a person who appreciates the craftsmanship and beauty of the residential architecture of the streetcar suburb era, and yet recognizes the long-term need for cities to densify their centers, this seems to present a rather painful dilemma.  Is a compromise solution possible?  If the architectural aspects of historical zoning are retained, while the restrictions as to architecturally-compatible infill and expansion are loosened, there may be a chance to satisfy both interests.  Such a change would require a rethinkinking of status-quo obsessed historic zoning guidelines in the the context of a long-term vision for increased urban density.  The laneway house, at least, represents one possible approach that could be easily integrated into a historic zoning framework, but one which has not yet found widespread acceptance in the United States.


  1. House at the back of the lot? Laneway House?

    This is new?


    Working class immigrants and their children in Chicago used the two step approach to housing themselves more than a hundred years ago. Buy a vacant lot for cash (after saving, no Fannie or Freddie then). By what ever means necessary build what would become a large garage at the back of the lot as close to the lot lines as possible. Live in this structure.

    Save more money. Build a house on the front of the lot with the money they have saved. Move in this house, Open the back of the rear structure to open on the alley. You now have a house and garage.

    Some of these people failed and the rear structure remained as a house, later owners adding dormer and porches. I know I lived in and owned one on the Northside of Chicago during the 1970s-80s. There are still sections of the city where there are two three flat buildings standing one behind the other on narrow, deep lots.

    Building code changed and these are now illegal to build, but can still be used as housing with the proviso that the owner cannot break out the exterior walls to add more rooms, but you can still go up.

  2. Though the dilemma presented here is a reality and one faced by preservationists and planners alike, I think you are wrong to imply that these historic neighborhoods must change for the better of the city. Are there not plenty of non-designated/protected neighborhoods in which to apply infill and other densification measures?

    All too often, this sort of specious argument is made to erode the foundation of Historic Preservation; The zoning overlays are too restrictive and therefore nothing anywhere will ever be built for the betterment of society. The flaw is that these overlays represent a fraction of the available land in and around cities. Go somewhere else to experiment with adaptive use concepts...

    The preservationist has the unique job of applying foresight to reduce regret in future generations. Of course what we preserve now may not be so popular, but that is the point, that is why it needs preserving; because we do not want future generations to look back and say "why did they tear that down" or "what were they thinking when they built those infill houses?" just as we might look back and wonder why so many great buildings were demolished in the 60s and 70s to make way for parking garages.

  3. I would refuse historic designation to streetcar suburbs as long as the streetcars were missing. Think about it. The historic contest is already spoilt and broken.